Women can have it all. They can. They can run the house, they can have a successful career. They can be perfectly and wonderfully in love. They can contribute to society through philanthropy, volunteer word, board memberships. They can be in shape, run marathons, have Michelle Obama arms. They can be PTA president, room mother, and stage manager for the spring musical.
Women cannot have it all. The expectations are enormous. The pressure is suffocating. Education is a noble goal, even a good career. But everyone knows that marriage and children are really all any female can – and should—handle. And to be a good wife and mother she must sacrifice in other areas. She can work, sure, but it’ll have to be part time, or maybe not a position that uses her full potential.
Why do we have this argument? As my rhetoric students would (with any hope) point out, perhaps this is built on a false warrant. As some detractors point out, maybe we ought to question the nobility of the goal of “having it all” in the first place.
But here’s the thing. It’s built into my gut. The expectation that we women must strive to “have it all,” and then the “reality” that we cannot. That at some point we will have to make a choice and sacrifice something (and usually, at base, it is the choice between a “life” (i.e., career, success) and “family”). I know this is a pervasive structure because I hear a voice inside me judging other females (my age – this was less true before age 25) when they get married, as though there is something in my subconscious that has bought into the paradigm that every move that takes women towards the wife/mother existence takes us away from “success”. That voice sounds something like this: “Really? Her? I thought she was strong, independent.” And the voice gets even more prominent when another friend announces a baby on the way. That voice can best be summed up as expressing betrayal. There is something of my own person that feels betrayed – one more person abandoning me to live life as a single, child-less adult; and there is also something that feels betrayed on behalf of an ideal, like these friends are resorting to some kind of outdated, outmoded way of life. That voice is shocked that people still feel children are necessary. (Please keep reading.)
It’s funny, really, this voice. Because it’s not my voice. Well, okay, clearly it is my voice, but it does not express how I really feel. Clearly, having a family of one’s own (which is a really alienating way of putting it, but that’s another point entirely) is a wonderful thing. Who doesn’t want to share life with others? (I know not everyone wants to have children, and that’s fine.) I think it’s natural – necessary – to built, create, cultivate community out of this life, and the most basic is through companionship. So why the judgy voice? Why is it a betrayal to find someone with whom to share life, and then to create more people with whom to share life?
Can I be even more honest here? I think that the voice is my voice in some ways. When we talk about the noble goal of “having it all,” part of me recoils because, yes, I would like to find partnership, be a mother (as I’ve already discussed at one angle), but it’s not so simple as getting out there and achieving. I’ve been able to start down one piece of that path – I’ve sought education and career. But “having a family” is not as simple as submitting applications and getting accepted (to schools, to jobs, to houses). Sometimes – often times – it doesn’t seem up to me at all to “make it happen.” So that voice inside me is me, but it’s not so much a judgmental voice of betrayal; instead, at its most vulnerable, it is the lonely voice of jealousy. I do want it all, but there is only so much I can do (seemingly) on my own to get there.
Back to the idea of the faulty warrant; there are the problems with the nomenclature, yes? “Having it all.” Do I want it all? Because if I have everything, that’s an awful lot of potential to screw up. Living a life with only half of “it all” already comes with plenty of pressure and anxiety and fear and fullness. So why do I want more of it?
At its most innocent, having-it-all is about fulfillment. At its most selfish it is, of course, about being the best, having more than others, having the most – titles, money, stuff, achievement. I am scared of becoming the person that needs it all in the latter sense of the phrase, but certainly “want it all,” in that I seek fulfillment – not just professionally, but emotionally, psychologically, physically. What that means, though, has been skewed by the latter. To be physically healthy and happy, do I really have to be a size 2 (post-partum, even), muscular, triathlete? To be emotionally fulfilled, do I really have to find, woo, and marry the perfect man and live a life of whimsy and romance? To be professionally fulfilled, do I really have to climb – ruthlessly –to the top of my field, sit on boards, publish, win awards?
I hope not. Because I’d really like that voice to shut up.